The Submarine in My Basement


19 October 2004


Lookouts below!


Dive! Dive! Dive!


I have always loved movies which have submarines in them.  All those pipes running overhead and under foot, electric conduits tucked everywhere, electrical circuit breaker panels which always seem to catch fire when the sub is depth charged by the bad guys, big wheel valves and small hand wheel valves, the always watched depth gauge, the up and down angle gauge, the all important C02 gauge, pressure this, pressure that, dials and meters, the eerie light from the sonar or radar screen consoles, oh, and the periscope which always seems to come down so smoothly out of the top of the conning tower when the captain needs to look about and in some movies, drips water everywhere and terminology like dive planes, up bubble, drain cock, air blowers, ballast tanks, fathoms, range to target, torpedo tubes 1 and 2, aft and forward, torpedo running time and there, in this jumble of interconnected systems and all that terminology, are men, as much a part of the submarine as any valve or gauge.


And so with my love of submarine movies and all, I guess I should not be surprised that I inherited a submarine in my basement when I bought our current house.  Yep, a submarine, well sort of.  It is actually the house’s hydronic heating system but to me, it is U-571 the submarine.  It has got lots of pipes and valves but only 1 gauge which is too bad but I cannot figure out how to add more.  Anyway, when I moved into this house, I had no idea I was inheriting a submarine and that I would have to learn how to make it do what it was supposed to do.



No problem?  Yeah, well, water is in all those pipes and if there is any air in the pipes with the water, all sorts of odd, not right, noises come from the pipes when the heating system is fired up.  And so, for 13 winters I have struggled to get a handle on how to control U-571, to be the chief engineer of the “boat”, as submarines are called.  Boats.  Anyway, how did the crew ever learn which valve to turn or which handle to push down or pull up or even where the right value or lever was located in any single emergency or even normal operation?  If I am right, submariners go to some school of x number of weeks and then they are posted to a boat.  Weeks?  I has taken me years and that does not seem right.


In lots of submarine movies, something bad happens like water starts coming in and the crew jumps through hoops to get the leak to stop. Usually, they have to replace some valve packing which I never understand how they do this since all that water is gushing in.  Me, well I have enough trouble getting a water connection joint to seal properly when there is no water pressure in the line, much less the entire Atlantic or Pacific Oceans trying to making there way inside that tin-can of a “boat”.  Must be some secret to it that only submariners know and refuse to share.


Was actually on a World War II submarine once, in San Francisco and I could not believe how small it was, outside and in and how it had even more pipes, values and meters than I had ever imagined or seen in any movie.  But mostly it had the awful stench of diesel fuel and this is years and years after the sub last ran its old engines. 


Anyway, in the utility room of my house, is U-571 in all its glory for beside the hydonic system with all its pipes and values is also the circuit breaker panels for the house’s electrical system and also the distribution system for the house’s cable television system and finally a full air conditioning, air handler and so, yes, once I am in there with all that stuff, old U-571 comes to mind and I am the Chief Engineer of the boat.


A submarine in my basement?  Ok, so it is not really a submarine but if I could only get my headphones on and listen to the faint, static filled, ancient Morse code tapping out sub mission instructions, and I closed my eyes, I would be right there, inside my sub.



For more Ron Stultz writings, click here.